ICU nursing is also known as critical care nursing and can serve as a launching point for a nursing career. Many ICU nurses go on to become Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs), flight nurses, Nurse Practitioners, and specialty nurses in high risk areas that require advanced knowledge of hemodynamics. There are many types of ICUs including but not limited to: CVICU (open heart), MICU (medical), SICU (surgical), STICU (shock/trauma), NSICU (neurosurg), and ICUs that serve children and neonates.
Overall, demands for nurses is expected to increase over the next 10 years as our population ages and older nurses retire. Elite Learning reports the 2018 average yearly pay for RNs working in critical care environments was around $75,717. However, nurses that took steps to earn additional credentials made an average of around $92,314 working in critical care environments.
What Is Intensive Care Unit (ICU) Nursing?
ICU nursing is a rewarding career choice and not just because of the opportunity to help patients who are suffering from critical illness or are in a rapidly deteriorating condition. To successfully navigate the ICU requires exceptional attention to detail, and expert knowledge regarding advanced technology and pathophysiology of disease processes, often leading nurses to seek out additional education, training, and certification.
While ICU nursing can be incredibly physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging, many nurses also find great satisfaction in caring for patients in their hours of greatest need.
What does an Intensive Care Unit Nurse do?
ICU nurses typically work in the various specialty intensive care units of hospitals. They treat patients that are admitted with a critical illness, but also care for patients that are rapidly deteriorating in other areas of the hospital. ICU RNs work with other healthcare team members to help return patients to a more stable state so that they can be treated in less critical areas of the facility and progress towards recovery.
ICU nurses may work with post-op surgical patients who need special treatments during recovery. They also work with patients who are suffering from highly acute conditions and may need special life sustaining equipment, such as respirators, continuous dialysis, and ECMO. Because of this, ICU RNs must be extremely proficient in technical nursing skills and must be comfortable using, monitoring, and troubleshooting medical devices and machinery. In the ICU, nurses are constantly evaluating any minor change inpatient conditions in order to make real-time decisions about care.
Because ICU nurses work so closely with doctors and other medical team members, they must be able to employ excellent communication skills. Intensive care unit nurses may work with patients that can’t speak for themselves and they have to act as advocates for their patients. ICU nurses also help families communicate with impaired patients and help them navigate the overwhelming world of ICU care.
Where do ICU Nurses Work?
ICU mostly work inside closed units at acute care facilities. However, someone who is qualified to work as an ICU nurse has typically demonstrated the experience and knowledge needed to work in a wide variety of environments, such as emergency departments, operating rooms, cath labs, outpatient procedural areas, and even outpatient clinics. Critical care nurses may also be able to work for specialty organizations, such as non-profit relief agencies, where their skills may be called upon during emergency situations or disasters.
ICU Nurse Salary
While the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t list nursing pay by every specialty, it does indicate that nurses who work in a hospital environment make more on average than those that work in doctor’s offices, residential care facilities, or education. The average annual salary for RNs working in hospitals is around $75,030.
According to Elite Learning’s 2018 salary guide, critical care nurses made on average around $7,000 more per year than med-surg nurses, one of the most common nursing specialties. They also reported a higher mean income than nurses in specialties such as geriatrics, pediatrics, long-term care, rehab, public health, or ambulatory care.
Qualified ICU nurses may be able to increase how much they make through overtime and other perks, and those who are willing to travel can often make more as a travel ICU nurse providing critical care in areas experiencing a shortage.
Elite Learning reports the 2018 average yearly pay for RNs working in critical care environments was around $75,717. However, nurses that took steps to earn additional credentials made an average of around $92,314 working in critical care environments.
How to Become an Intensive Care Unit Nurse?
While some organizations do hire new graduate RNs without certifications or specific experience and train them in ICU nursing, many hospitals look to hire professionals with degrees, certifications, and relevant experience. A common path to working in the intensive care unit might follow the steps below.
- Graduate with a degree in nursing from an accredited school or from a program that appropriately prepares you to take the NCLEX-RN.
- Take and pass the NCLEX-RN and take the steps to obtain your RN license in the appropriate state (or your nurse compact license).
- Begin working as a nurse to obtain clinical experience, especially with critically ill patients. You need at least 1000 hours to obtain your CCRN.
- Determine if you want to obtain a critical care certification. The American Association of Critical-Care Nurses offers a number of certifications, but the CCRN is the most common adult certification. There are additional options for pediatric or neonate nurses, and there are certifications related to specific ICU specialty such as cardiac surgery (CSC).